Joy Too Soon

I hear my phone ding in rapid succession. I know it’s my mother. She’s the only one who writes me this way. 

Since our respective lockdowns, my mother and I have been sharing food photos with each other over LINE. She uses her iPad to document what she eats. Void of any sort of styling, they are straight up aerial shots of whatever was on the table that day: rice, fish, pickles, soup. “Her plates” sit next to what she prepares for my father, usually of a different palate with pasta, gravy, pickles, cheese. A giant salad bridges the divide, mounted with textures of green that I can only dream of, now that I live in a country where winter lasts eight months. 

These photos were a long time coming. I moved out of my parents’ home 18 years ago and had kept our default ethos of ‘no news is good news.’ It wasn’t until I started my Instagram account with my first ever smartphone that I wanted to share pretty pictures, and I started tinkering with the different filters to a fault. I would send my parents all of my posts as an email attachment, like a digital postcard, but I was met with seldom reactions or engagement. Sending my parents photos that were over-saturated, over-exposed, and way too artificially granular for my (at the time) 3.some megapixel phone-camera was an earnest gesture, a “mommy, daddy, look what I made!” that I never really had in my childhood. So when my mother mentioned off-hand that she’d started a ‘food journal’ to help her keep track of how the days come to pass during lockdown, I immediately and genuinely asked her to send them to me. 

And when she does, they’re photos of the past three meals sent at once: ding, ding, ding. 

Sometimes the photographs are self-explanatory, as I recognize my mother’s burdock kinpira, twice-cooked pork, shrimp and broccoli—all of which get muddled in translation as ‘stir-fry.’ These dishes dig deep into my nostalgia and I find myself riffing on her recipes with whatever I have on hand. When I ask her about substitutions, she shares with me an ounce of empathy, tapping back to her own misery when she had to navigate ‘home’ cooking with foreign ingredients after moving to the US decades ago.

Sometimes the photographs show outdoor barbecues with family friends, seated at separate tables, lifting burgers with what are clearly smiles behind each mask. And, as even Northern California cools down at this time of year, I see fewer grills and more hotpots. But they’re still outdoors, using the portable ‘casette’ stoves with the miniature cans of butane. Though I never see the next-day’s porridge that uses the leftover broth from the hotpot, I know it’s happening. It always does.

Sometimes the photos document the citrus trees—the yuzu, the oro blanco, the meyer lemons—which is my father’s domain of backyard garden maintenance. I see pride on their faces, beaming smiles as they hold up fruit from their very own trees, trees that I can recall being newly planted when I was still a child: look what we grew! Over autumn, I was receiving updates on squirrel-gate, as they’d been feasting on the persimmons. Over summer, it was the figs. I wonder what dispatches I’ll receive in the Spring. 

Sometimes I receive photos that have zero context but, from our chat history, seems out of place. 

A wall lined with grocery bags…

I use the ‘Reply’ function on LINE to reference the photo and inquire: “What are those bags of?” I recognize the hallway that connects the kitchen to the dining room, the area closest to the fridge. It is lined with eight or so shopping bags, some with store names I recognize, filled and bulging with what, I don’t know yet. 

“Today’s shopping” she reports, pithy and vague.

Another time, I see a disposable tray of identical brown nubs, hidden amidst other photos of grilled fish and jajangmyeon. They look deep fried, and I reply with “What are these? Donuts?” 

“Kiyo’s curry-bread, 100 of them.” 

“!!!  Whyyyyyy??!?!???”

“Kiyo now needs money…. and so I asked some friends to buy her curry-bread. Next Monday she is going to make another 100.” 

Another time I see ornate and identical arrangements. Three in a row. Stewed bamboo in the top left corner, next to stewed pumpkin, a rolled-up omelette in the top right corner with grilled salmon, and the bottom half is a combination of burdock kinpira, pickles, and steamed fish cakes, each separated by the paper version of muffin-tin liners. Again, I zero-in on the bento boxes. I asked who made them, but I should’ve known better. 

“Sayuri-san had knee-replacement surgery and so I made one for the family.”

One? One set, you mean. And that’s one helluva gift you made, ma. In my attempts to gather clues from these photo exchanges, I finally see the bigger picture: my mother figured it out, a post-capitalist care economy. At any given time, she is part of a much more intricate web of exchanges and barters, but it’s one that never borders on the sinister realm of keeping tabs or keeping up social graces. It is an economy built on abundance and community, keeping each other tethered, gracious, and well-considered. It is a marketplace of seeking and supporting, a place of knowing that only good can happen when delights are shared, especially when they come as a surprise. The Johnsons next door are the recipients of the porridge made with the hotpot-broth because one of them is immunocompromised, and this after years of neighborly requests to check the mail or roll out the trash bins while my parents were abroad. The Kims receive semi-weekly bento boxes in exchange for waived fees at a golf club my mother cannot access otherwise. The elderly Tanakas receive meals twice a week. The Shirvanis receive meals after the mother undergoes chemotherapy: one vegan, one gluten free, plus two more to complete the fam. Consequently, family friends share their bounty with my mother: red bean paste sweets to accompany tea time, gallon-bags of homemade kimchi without the garlic to which my mother is allergic, smiles and thank yous by virtual chat. 

When I called her out on it, my mother listed all of the connections and cackled over the phone. She admits that she cooks for about a dozen folks every week. But she likes it, she says. It gives her joy. And everybody else enjoys too.

“I’m going to die well! Don’t you think?” she grins. 

We both laugh over the LINE video call. More like a cackle, with both our heads cocked back in unrestrained glee. And there’s a part of me that thinks: too soon, mother. Too soon. But I’ll take it. I’ll take this joy too soon over no-joy any day.